“The hotel business is about strangers. And strangers will always surprise you. They come to hotels in the night to do dirty things, and in the morning it’s our job to make things look pretty again.”
–Sergi Lopez, “Dirty Pretty Things”

When is a thriller not a thriller? When British director Stephen Frears makes it.

Frears creates serious movies for serious adults, movies like the serious comedy “High Fidelity” or the serious horror flick “Mary Reilly,” or “Hero” or “The Grifters” or “Dangerous Liaisons” or “My Beautiful Laundrette.” His 2003 release “Dirty Pretty Things” is no exception. It contains little action or adventure, no sci-fi or fantasy, no special effects, and only understated humor. It’s mostly straight drama, a bit over-the-top, perhaps, but realistic enough to make the film reasonably gripping throughout. “Dirty Pretty Things” may not satisfy the tastes of all serious adult audiences, true, and it is mainly an exercise in characterization and style over substance or reason; but while it’s unfolding, it usually works and keeps one under its spell. I credit the actors as well as the director for this. It’s a fine collaborative effort. But don’t blame me if you find the movie boring, despite its lurid subject matter. Remember, it’s a thriller that is not really a thriller.

The story is set in and about a downtown London hotel and concerns the goings on among not the hotel’s guests but the hotel’s employees. Things, implies Frears, are not always as they appear, and beneath the hotel’s elegant facade is an underbelly of evil and corruption, from relatively mild acts of prostitution to more seriously offensive dealings in human organs.

Yet whatever the goings-on are at the hotel, no matter how depraved, they are not the primary focus of the movie. That would be too simple. The film is actually about the workers at the hotel, each of whom hides a fearful secret, providing Frears with the opportunity to make a statement about the way people in power treat people out of power and the way advantaged societies and governments treat people with less advantage. Crime, greed, extortion, exploitation, sweat shops, and illegal immigration all play a part in the lives of the film’s main characters.

As a straightforward thriller the film may have its flaws, but as a character study the film works admirably. First billed in the cast is Audrey Tautou as Senay, one of the hotel’s maids. But like everything else about the film, even Tautou’s billing is deceptive because she’s not, in fact, the star. The real leading character is Senay’s friend, Okwe (Chivetal Ejiofor), a Nigerian cab driver, doctor, and night clerk at the hotel, a man who cannot sleep and works round the clock. Chivetal Ejiofor, you ask? You can see why Ms. Tautou was billed first. Motion pictures must above all be sold to an audience, and after the success of “Amelie,” the name “Tautou” sells tickets. Yet this film couldn’t be any further away from the cheery, bouncy satire of “Amelie.” Nor is it primarily about Tautou’s character.

Okwe, checking out one of the hotel’s rooms one evening, makes a grisly discovery: A human heart is clogging a toilet! But when he brings the matter to the attention of the hotel’s manager, Juan (Sergi Lopez), he’s told to forget about it. As the plot unwinds, Okwe discovers the heart is only the tip of the iceberg. But if Okwe doesn’t ignore the situation, Juan, known as “Sneaky,” will report him to the immigration officials because Okwe is in the country illegally. Okwe must look the other way, ignore the problem. “If you want to stay,” says Ivan, the amoral doorman (Zlatko Buric), “don’t concern yourself with who comes and who goes.”

Still, that’s not all. Senay, too, is an immigrant to the country and as such is not supposed to be working in London for a period of time. She must not say anything about what she sees, either, or Juan will either terminate her employment or turn her in to the authorities.

Beyond the macabre and selfish utilization of live organ donors who would do anything for the money to pull through, the film poses the questions of what anyone would do for freedom and what anyone would do if enough money were at stake. Okwe and Senay, clearly though not overtly in love, are two people trying to survive, both with secrets, both desperate, both thwarted by a world indifferent to their plight. “We are people you do not see,” says Okwe, suggesting his frustration.

Ejiofor and Tautou are terrific in their roles as two good but apparently hopeless people clinging to each other for support. Ejiofor is especially appealing for his expression of inner strength and resolve; the actor makes us believe in him, no matter what his character’s past may hold for us.

It is the stability of the two performances and the taut direction of Stephen Frears that holds the movie together. The ending we can see coming. The tension of the criminal activities is only slight. Some of the characters’ behavior, like the dogged pursuit of little Sensay by the immigration officials for having a job, seems exaggerated. And the melodrama may be more than a tad overstated. But one cannot let go of the performances. They lift “Dirty Pretty Things” from the level of the ordinary mystery adventure to a special realm of things compellingly authentic and humane.

The picture, presented in an anamorphic 1.74:1 ratio, is intentionally odd, mostly murky and dark to augment the foul tone of its themes. Object delineation is slightly blurred, and none of the colors are particularly vivid; nor are they muted, nor or they natural. They’re simply bizarre, meant to convey a feeling of decay and corruption. Still, darker areas of the screen are a bit too obscure to permit much inner detail to show through, and there is a small degree of roughness to the image that may or may not be deliberate. Shots in broad daylight are clear and sharp, however, leading me to believe that most of the eccectricities in the rest of the visual presentation were created specifically for the motion picture rather than introduced in the transfer process.

The sound is reproduced via Dolby Digital 5.1, but the five channels themselves don’t matter as much as the Dolby Digital system’s ability to communicate appropriate definition. The audio reproduction delivers good, clean dialogue, with a bass deep and strong for musical passages. Music is the only thing heightened in the rear channels, but since there is little need for anything else there, that’s about all we get.

Two main bonus items accompany the film, neither of them of particular distinction. There is the mandatory audio commentary with the director, Stephen Frears, who does an acceptable job telling us about his involvement with the story, why he selected it, why he chose the actors, why he shot certain scenes the way he did, and so on. He also attempts to give us some insights into what is plainly an ambitious-sounding but ultimately fairly simple script. He tells us he isn’t even sure what the title means. I’m not entirely sure why anyone would want to sit through an entire film over again listening to a director, any director, unless the film were extraordinarily special. “Dirty Pretty Things” is a good film and a recommendable film, but it is hardly an extraordinary film. Anyway, the second bonus item is a six-minute, behind-the-scenes promo, which says in fewer words what the director spends ninety-seven minutes on. Concluding the lineup of extras are a meager seventeen scene selections, English and French spoken languages, English captions for the hearing impaired, and a few Sneak Peeks at other Miramax productions.

Parting Thoughts:
In the end, liking or not liking “Dirty Pretty Things” depends upon one’s liking or disliking its two principal players. For me, the actors were compelling enough to sustain the picture’s length; for others, the movie’s plot may seem so wholly predictable and slow, it overshadows everything else. But like it or not, there’s no denying its stylish direction, and that may ultimately be the deciding factor. The film is rated R for profanity, sexual situations, and disturbing imagery.